A little more than 12 weeks ago, the Patriots went into Pittsburgh and dominated the Steelers, rolling to a 27-16 win. In that game, Rob Gronkowski had a significant impact, while Ben Roethlisberger did not.
Now, the script has been flipped ahead of Sunday’s AFC title game. Gronkowski is out due to injury for the Patriots, while Big Ben is back and healthy for the Steelers, ready to take on one of his biggest rivals, Tom Brady.
Those aren’t the only differences this game will present from Week 7’s game. There are several key things that have changed since then, and they’ll play a significant role in this game.
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Dion Lewis is back
Lewis was still recovering from a knee injury suffered last season when the Patriots played the Steelers in Week 7, but he’ll be on the field and ready to make an impact this time around. Against the Texans on Saturday, Lewis hit the trifecta with three touchdowns – becoming the first player ever to score on a rushing, receiving and kick return touchdown in a postseason game. Do you think he’s a valuable piece for the Patriots? Yeah, that’s a safe bet.
His workload has been steady in recent weeks, getting at least 11 carries in each of his last four games. LeGarrette Blount is still the workhorse in New England, but Lewis will play a significant role in this one in multiple facets of the game.
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Jamie Collins is in Cleveland
Remember that Jamie Collins guy? Yeah, he was out there against the Steelers back in Week 7, but that was just before his shocking trade to Cleveland. He led the Patriots with eight solo tackles, proving to be a key factor against Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers’ offense. Collins is a rangy linebacker with outstanding coverage ability, but the Patriots won’t have him at their disposal in this one.
Instead, they’ll rely on Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy to fill his place a bit, both against the run and against the pass. Both are capable players with some saying Hightower is actually a more complete linebacker, but replacing Collins won’t be easy against the Steelers. He has the speed and recognition to contain Bell and not let him break big runs.
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Julian Edelman has become a true No. 1 receiver
In the first eight games of the season, Julian Edelman was averaging five catches and 45 yards – 41 receptions and 358 yards total. Since then, he hasn’t had a single game with fewer than 73 yards and five receptions. His total in the nine games since Week 10 are 65 receptions for 885 yards.
His turnaround since the Steelers game, when he caught nine passes for 60 yards, has been remarkable. He’s become the true No. 1 receiver he was two years ago, and it’s made a world of difference for the Patriots. They’re no longer dependent on Rob Gronkowski, and Brady can always depend on Edelman to not only get open but make guys miss and gain valuable yards after the catch. In his last two games, he has 288 yards on just 16 receptions.
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Le’Veon Bell is on a tear
Bell struggled on the ground against the Patriots. There’s just no way around that fact. He carried it 21 times for 81 yards, his second-lowest output in a game in which he had 20 carries. He did catch 10 passes for 68 yards, but his inability to establish the run hurt the Steelers and prevented them from setting the tone early.
Since his slow start, Bell has been an unstoppable force for the Steelers. He’s rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of his last eight games, averaging more than 170 yards from scrimmage per game. He was absolutely someone the Patriots had to game plan for in Week 7, but Bell is a different player now than he was back in October.
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The Steelers’ secondary is much-improved
One of the best moves the Steelers made this season was elevating rookies Sean Davis and Artie Burns on the depth chart. They’ve since moved from backups to starters, and it’s made a world of difference for Pittsburgh’s defense. Against the Patriots, Burns played just 35 snaps on defense – or 61.4 percent. Since then, he hasn’t played fewer than 86.2 percent with five games where he played every snap.
Davis’ improved playing time has been even more jarring, going from three snaps in Week 7 to playing 100 percent in each of the final seven games. Of course, they’re not the only reasons for Pittsburgh’s improved pass defense, but they’ve played a huge role in it. The Steelers haven’t allowed more than 253 yards passing since Week 10.
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Rob Gronkowski is injured
The Patriots went into their Week 7 game against the Steelers with their best weapon fully healthy. Rob Gronkowski was the force that he’s always been, catching four passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Gronk, of course, won’t be available for this game, and it’ll be a significant blow for the Patriots.
He’s a matchup nightmare for opposing teams and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being the blocker that he is. He’s a complete tight end, and when healthy, the best the game has ever seen. The Patriots have overcome his crushing injury for weeks, but Gronk’s absence will be felt Sunday.
Ben Roethlisberger is healthy
Arguably the biggest difference from Week 7 to the AFC Championship is the guy who will be playing quarterback for the Steelers. In their first meeting, the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger, who was recovering from a knee injury. Landry Jones got the start in his place, throwing for 281 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Roethlisberger was forced to watch from the sideline, but he’ll have a huge hand in this weekend’s showdown.
That’s not to say it means the Steelers are a lock to win, of course. Roethlisberger is just 3-5 against the Patriots, but there’s no question he gives the Steelers the best chance to win – and he’ll make a huge difference on Sunday in Foxborough. Surprisingly, this is just the second time Roethlisberger and Brady will meet in the playoffs with the other instance resulting in a Steelers loss – Roethlisberger’s rookie season.